If any man is keeping the faith in solid Noel-rock song-writing, it’s Richard Ashcroft. This fifth solo album – the follow-up to 2016’s rousing comeback album ‘These People’, which was 10 years in the making – is the noble sound of one cosmic romantic trying to make sense of this crazy, messed-up world with just the acoustic guitar, the odd orchestra and full choir that still-healthy ‘90s royalty cheques allow.
Whereas ‘These People’ was Ashcroft’s state-of-the-world address, tackling the wars, riots, revolutions, online trolling and media lies he’d been watching from his basement studio, ‘Natural Rebel’ is a sackful of ‘Sonnets’. The lovestruck troubadour of ‘Urban Hymns’ is back centre-stage, a little more country, no more rock’n’roll. When Richard croons “all my dreams are wrapped up in you” on the Tom Petty-ish ‘All My Dreams’; indulges classic rock’n’roll on the wistful ‘Birds Fly’; or comes on like a ‘50s teen idol on the string-slathered ‘That’s How Strong’, he’s treading very familiar territory. He’s so comfortable in his well-worn big ballad rut that he almost sounds like a pastiche of himself.
There are moments of ‘70s symphonic rock classicism here that sound like Richard dropping a CV off with The Travelling Wilburys (‘A Man In Motion’, ‘Streets Of Amsterdam’), while ‘Born To Be Strangers’ is the sort of vaguely motoric blues you might have found on an ‘80s Clapton record. But ‘Natural Rebel’ is best when it doesn’t rely on hackneyed formulas – when Ashcroft mingles ELO strings with Jam Northern soul on the life-loving ‘Surprised By The Joy’, for instance, or when ‘That’s When I Feel It’ rattles by on an effervescent hookline and somehow rhymes “it’s like a gift for me” with “it’s like the garden of Gethsemane”.
It’s only on the closing ‘Money Money’ that he sounds like any sort of rebel at all, upping the pace dramatically for a chunk of smoke-spewing Motörhead ‘battle rock’, railing against the seditious lure of materialism. “Money money make your world go round… Your riffs do nothing at all!” Ashcroft snarls at all the formulaic dosh rockers.
His intentions might be purer, but his formulas are just as rigid – ‘Natural Rebel’ is an album for people who generally like Richard Ashcroft albums. And at a stage when even Noel is fucking around with scissor solos, taking such safe roads only leads Ashcroft down a cultural cul-de-sac.